Extreme architecture: 3 breathtaking mountaintop masterpieces

Solid rock under a blanket of snow, austere stone walls, and icy, lashing winds at an elevation of more than 3,000 metres: Anyone who gets here will mainly want a respite from struggling against the elements – and will find it behind the protective walls of an awe-inspiring piece of architecture, rather than in a shaky, decrepit mountain cabin. Even in this inhospitable environment, innovative architecture has made it all the way to the top.

At the architectural summit: A well-choreographed renovation of extreme architecture

Anyone thinking of building a property 3,450 metres above sea level in heavy snow conditions, with temperatures fluctuating by 40 degrees Celsius and wind speeds of up to 215 kilometres per hour, must really love a challenge. And this is exactly how French architect Jacques Félix-Faure found his calling. For his third alpine project, the passionate mountaineer dedicated himself to restoring the Refuge de L’Aigle alpine hut erected in 1911.

The hut is located about 500 metres from the summit of La Meije in the French Massif des Écrins nature reserve, and has been defying the harsh mountainous conditions for decades.

New foundations and additional wood cladding provide the old construction with more stability and a modern finish for its museum-like appearance. With its stone-grey panelling on the walls and roof, the alpine hut blends seamlessly into the rugged mountain landscape. Partial constructions assembled at ground level were airlifted to the summit by helicopter in 650-kilo packages – a project that required all those involved to perform a 'perfect choreography', as Félix-Faure describes it.

So as not to detract from the beauty of the panorama, the cabin’s interior has a puristic look, similar to the inside of a submarine. Up to 30 adventurers can use three sleeping levels spread over 65 square metres, and there are hammocks for another twelve climbers to get some well-deserved rest to recharge their batteries.

Extreme architecture

Retreat above the clouds: A modern wood cabin in the Slovenian Alps

Resting has also become an experience for climbers heading for the summit of Skuta mountain in Slovenia, as a shelter in the style of traditional Slovenian architecture is now perched on the slope of a precipitous site. Its materials and design are resilient to the extreme mountain climate in these harsh, inaccessible surroundings. However, in addition to its rustic, wooden interior, the modern building has a few other perks: through its huge window façades climbers can enjoy views across a seemingly endless layer of cotton-wool clouds – or on a clear day, down to the valley landscape. Extreme architecture mostly comes with extreme beauty.

Up to eight visitors can get cosy in the cabin, which is divided into three sections: the entrance area has cooking facilities, the middle section contains sitting and reclining areas, and the back section offers cosy bunk beds.

The project was devised in 2014 during a seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Out of twelve designs, one was selected by experts at the OFIS architectural firm to be realised together with professional mountaineers and engineers (with a head for heights). The modular components for the wood structure were delivered by helicopter and assembled on site.

Architecture on the top of the world

Source: ALPINE SHELTER SKUTA / OFIS architects

As if it fell from the sky: The energy self-sufficient Cube

"A bit off-kilter" may be your first thought when coming across this piece of extreme architecture, a mountain cabin in the High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. The Cube, by Czech architecture firm Atelier 8000, looks like it has fallen from the sky and half sunk at an angle in the massive glacier rock. The design for this cuboid cabin, which looks like a surreal apparition between the jagged rocks of the mountain backdrop, came about as part of the Kežmarská Chata international call for tenders. The façade is divided into squares made up of aluminium plating, solar panels, and windows. From a distance, the light reflecting from the extensive glass surfaces looks like the sparkling of a mountain lake, but their main purpose is functional: three sides of the cube use sunlight to make the accommodation energy self-sufficient.

The entrance to the shelter is at the bottom corner of the Cube, from where those seeking shelter can also access a garage for snowmobiles, a ski room, and toilets. The first floor houses a restaurant and observation deck, while the upper areas contain cosy sleeping and recreational areas. The stunning panorama can be enjoyed from colossal window seats made from larch wood – unless there’s snow storm raging outside.

Many a future property owner might now perhaps consider a mountaintop address. But without being a world famous mountaineer, a survival specialist, or owning a helicopter pilot’s licence, you can still find equally innovative living ideas and high-end architecture in less vertiginous surroundings.

Mountain colossus

Can you hear the mountains calling? Which cabin would you most likely visit during your next summit attempt? We’re excited to read your inspiring comments.

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